In an online discussion, students are asked to respond to particular challenges or prompts provided by lecturers. The selection of appropriate prompts, and the way in which the teacher facilitates the ensuing discussion, has a significant impact on the effectiveness of the exercise.
Online discussions are a way of delivering learning content flexibly, so that students with different study and work schedules are able to contribute to class conversations. They provide ways for both introverted and extroverted learners to meaningfully respond to readings, activities, and lectures, and they also make student and lecturer contributions to a topic accessible for those who miss in-class sessions. Online discussions work well alongside online group activities, as students are able to coordinate content easily, and lecturers are given visibility into the groups’ workflow. Online discussions are crucial for courses delivered flexibly, and provide a range of advantages to face to face courses as well.
Creating activities based in online discussions results in students familiarising themselves with the format and later using the forums more freely. Some lecturers have set up social discussion-spaces to further enhance a sense of community, as well as to ensure that conversations don’t sidetrack activity-based discussions. It is important to consider whether contributions will be graded or assessed, as students could be less likely to use forums if they cannot see the benefit in doing so. If they are not compulsory, lecturers will have to employ methods for engaging students such as posting content in the forums and emphasising the advantages of online spaces complementing face to face learning. If they are compulsory, lecturers must be open about what constitutes good discussions online, and clear about how students are being assessed. Although online discussions are a popular and accessible platform, it is important that lecturers consider how best to use them. Face to face methods that have worked for in-class discussions are useful in an online context as well, for example breaking students into smaller groups for more focused discussions that will also allow introverted students to feel safe in their contributions.
Where to next?
Online discussions in both flexible and face to face courses have proven to foster a sense of community among learners, and to facilitate peer generated learning whereby lecturers can enter discussions without being expected to provide any answers. It is the role of the educator to ensure that students are engaged, without making themselves too present in discussions. Students will not likely engage in discussions if they cannot see the intrinsic value of doing so, and so it is important that educators organise learning around the opportunities for interpersonal interactions online.
Tools and tips
Aragón, P., Gómez, V., García, D., & Kaltenbrunner, A. (2017). Generative models of online discussion threads: State of the art and research challenges. Journal of Internet Services and Applications, 8(1), 15. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13174-017-0066-z
Biasutti, M. (2017). A coding scheme to analyse the online asynchronous discussion forums of university students. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 26(5), 601–615. https://doi.org/10.1080/1475939X.2017.1365753
Zheng, L., Cui, P., Li, X., & Huang, R. (2017). Synchronous discussion between assessors and assessees in web-based peer assessment: impact on writing performance, feedback quality, meta-cognitive awareness and self-efficacy. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2017.1370533